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McAleese rattles old skeletons - but must put flesh on the bones

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Mary McAleese

Mary McAleese

Lucinda Creighton

Lucinda Creighton

Dunphy and Giles with Liam Brady

Dunphy and Giles with Liam Brady

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Mary McAleese

Mary McAleese makes no secret of her deep and mounting disdain for the Catholic hierarchy, a doddery male elite which she has recently described as an "old boys' club" and likened to a bunch of unruly juveniles.

Trying to get the attention of the Church's top brass, the former president observed during a public interview in Australia, is comparable to shouting at children. "If I'm yelling it's because you didn't listen to me when I said it nicely," she quipped.

McAleese is a woman with a mission, an alarming proposition for which the grandees of the Curia seem hopelessly ill-prepared. At the launch of Quo Vadis?, her 2012 book about ecclesiastical power politics, she explicitly stated that the primary objective of her post-presidential life is to be a thorn in the side of Vatican authorities.

McAleese's relationship with the Catholic Church is complicated because she's actually quite keen on pretty much everything about the organisation except the men who run it. But her capacity to cause trouble for these guys is enormous and, thus far, it has been grossly underestimated.

To many of us, McAleese's quarrel with the old boys' club seems irredeemably pointless. Intellectually and in terms of moral authority, she beats every member of the Church's officer class into a cocked mitre so it seems almost perverse of her to be wasting valuable time attempting to reason with these people.

Nevertheless, this is the work McAleese has chosen to do and we should be grateful because, in the midst of her yelling at the Curia, we are hearing some fascinating new detail about life in dear old Ireland. Last week, she recounted a particularly intriguing vignette from her days as head of State.

Sometime in the late 1990s, during the early years of her first presidential term, McAleese was visited at Aras an Uachtarain by a senior Catholic cleric. The clergyman was seeking advice. These were torrid days for the Irish hierarchy as the first big wave of clerical sex abuse allegations broke and bishops were coming under increasing pressure to co-operate with a variety of State investigations.

The Church bigwig clearly saw President McAleese as an influential and sympathetic ally - a friend in high places. If he thought she would absolve him of his sins, however, he had come to the wrong confessional.

McAleese appears to have given her visitor short shrift, offering him a heavy dose of plain speaking and commonsense. She suggested that the Church should "open up the diocesan archives" and, having carried out a relevant audit relating to the allegations, "tell the people of God what's going on".

The churchman laughed at her. "I said, 'if you don't, the State will intervene'," she recalled. "And his last words to me, getting into the car, were, 'the State would never cross that line'."

McAleese recounted this illuminating anecdote during a fundraising event for the Global Irish Studies Centre at the University of New South Wales. She concluded the story on an upbeat note, assuring her audience that her esteemed Aras guest was wrong and that the Irish State did eventually "cross that line" - which is true, up to a point.

Understandably, given the overseas setting, McAleese declined to identify the senior Catholic cleric who blithely assumed the civil authorities would conspire in a cover-up of criminal activity and who literally scoffed at the notion that the Church should come clean. In the interests of full disclosure, however, the former president would be well-advised to place his name on the public record - and the sooner the better.

So far, domestic reaction to McAleese's speech about the chortling churchman has been muted. Spokespeople for a couple of groups representing victims of clerical sex abuse have noted her comments but Mary Flaherty, CEO of Children At Risk in Ireland, was almost alone in calling on McAleese to name the individual concerned.

"We need to know this person is no longer in a position of influence," said Flaherty.

McAleese currently resides in Rome as she studies for her doctorate on children's rights in Canon Law. Despite media speculation suggesting that Pope Francis views her as an important ally in his plans for Curia reform, she insists she has no interest in heading any Vatican congregation or body.

However, there is little doubt that high-level Church politics is now her primary focus. Good luck to her; but it would be unfortunate if she forgot entirely about the problems created by the unresolved blurring of the lines between Church and State in her home country.

The damage wrought on Irish society by the Catholic Church's rampaging arrogance is by no means an historical matter. A range of ongoing controversies - from religious orders dragging their heels on redress payments to the increasingly murky scandal of the mother-and-baby homes - will make this a very live subject for many years yet.

Other politicians or public officials to whom senior churchman might be inclined to turn for help or advice may not be as conscientious as McAleese. It would be helpful, therefore, if she told us a little more about how all this works and who, precisely, is making the running.

Rattling the many skeletons that still lurk in the nation's darkest closet is noble work but McAleese could do the State even greater service by putting some flesh on the bones.

Get this party started

Lucinda Creighton's announcement that she will never return to Fine Gael - not even when Enda Kenny slings his hook - deserves a hearty welcome. After what seems like years of waffle, tease and fudge, the self-styled champion of "new" politics has finally outlined a coherent policy agenda.

Creighton's long-running peek-a-boo routine is one of the most tiresome spectacles in public life. Clearly keen to set up a new political party, and alert to the intensifying voter demand for such a movement, she drops big hints and makes gung-ho noises but invariably shrinks from taking the decisive step. All this nodding and winking from a supposed reformer who claims to despise nod-and-wink politics would actually be funny if it weren't so pitiful.

Creighton's dithering and procrastination have been a strategic disaster. Reform Alliance, which she co-founded with a ragbag of fellow Fine Gael refugees, has conspicuously failed to make its presence felt.

By hooking up with the Technical Group, the Alliance may succeed in raising its parliamentary profile but further dilution of its identity seems inevitable.

Interviewed by Newstalk's Pat Kenny last week, Creighton railed against what she calls "pigeonholing". Her split with Fine Gael over abortion has led some to categorise her as an old-school religious conservative, and she deeply resents this "simplistic" depiction.

Fair enough. Ultimately, however, nobody can explain what Creighton stands for better than Creighton herself. Her refusal to spell it out makes a nonsense of her rhetoric about leadership. It also bolsters the perception that she's a shape-throwing poseur, high on aspirational banalities but low on fresh thinking.

The final irony is that Creighton and the Reform Alliance are fast becoming an impediment to the very change they espouse. If they are neither willing nor able to launch a new party, they should 'fess up and stand aside so others can get on with the job.

PS: Giles and Dunphy

Given their habitual crimes against broadcasting, it's no surprise that a couple of football pundits have ended up behind bars. For some of the more floridly deluded sports fans, however, the Dairy Milk chocolate ads featuring RTE ballsology professors John Giles and Eamon Dunphy appear to represent an insult to natural law.

Some have even been heard to worry that Giles and Dunphy are damaging their (ahem) credibility.

The standard chocolate bar advertising formula is all about making the featured product "mean" more than it actually does. A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play etc. Football punditry serves the same purpose.

During breaks in the TV coverage of games that are nothing if not self-explanatory, the 'experts' are essentially required to make the kicking of a ball "mean" more than it actually does. In reality, Giles and Dunphy have always been in the business of muttering sweet nothings.

Indo Review